Matthieu Ricard’s thought for the week

I always appreciate Matthieu Ricard’s ‘thought for the week’, and today’s offering seems particularly valuable as a starting point for reflection. From the teachings of the Dalai Lama, it touches the essence of what spirituality and religion should be about – not improbable beliefs, but personal transformation.  It also touches on the issue of neuroplasticity, and the mistake of assuming that the mind can be ‘reduced’ to a determinist view of neural activity. Here it is…

‘The mind is malleable: it is capable of change. So we need to learn to see how we can transform it. We need to identify the ways to achieve that transformation and put them into action. Samsara, the circle of existences, and nirvana, the state beyond it, are not like geographical locations far from one another. They are two states of mind. Samsara is a deviation from knowledge, a distorted vision of reality that makes the mind the slave of negative emotions, while nirvana is a state of inner freedom, free of any conceptual and emotional obstacles.

Oral Teachings given in Schvenedingen Germany, 1998.

FOURTEENTH DALAI LAMA, TENZIN GYATSO (B. 1936)

Beyond the grave?

What do you make of this?

DSC_2670

I promise you this photograph owes nothing to Photoshop. This tree, over many years, has grown quite naturally out of the grave. For some it may be an appropriate Easter image of hope, but you don’t need to be particularly religious to ponder its significance.

We may hope and believe (rightly so, since we are all unique) that our lives are somehow special, worthy of a permanent memorial – or perhaps simply that we may aspire to live worthy of a decent funeral oration when our time comes. We may also look beyond death as a natural phenomenon (however unnatural or tragic its circumstances in so many cases) and recognise that nature will inevitably take over and insist that we become nourishment for the next generations of living things. We are all swept along in a natural process of life and death; a stream that was flowing long before our individual consciousness came to birth, and that will continue to flow long after all whom we know have long vanished from the earth. If beyond death is the same as before birth, we have nothing to fear. Or, as Wittgenstein observed, death is not an event in life.

It may also remind us to let go of our craving for the past or for permanence, since neither is possible, and focus on the present moment – savouring the beauty of transient life, and celebrating the fleeting now.

Teilhard de Chardin argued that humankind would never move in a direction it knew to be blocked, but would be paralysed at the thought that its efforts would not win through to some eternal future goal.  I’m not persuaded of that. We find it all too easy to go blindly down alleys that lead nowhere – as individuals, or humankind as a whole. But do we do so knowingly? Or do we secretly believe that our particular dreams will somehow yield a permanent result?  Teilhard, along with most western religious thinkers, sought an overall structure of meaning and purpose (generally described in terms of ‘God’, for him a evolution leading to Omega) to make sense of life, believing in that structure being a prerequisite of salvation from meaningless existence.  At the other end of the scale, the Buddhist tradition requires the radical letting go, accepting and celebrating the present moment.  Personally, I find the latter more satisfying and realistic. It does not preclude other beliefs, but renders them of secondary importance to the immediate engagement with this ever-changing life.

I guess, for the more cynical (or realistic), the image also suggests that one really should take care to remove any ill-placed saplings that may have started to spring up from a long-forgotten acorn. Neglect it now and the result will be immovable in a generation or two!

Happy Easter to you all!

Of hair loss, landscapes and neural pathways…

This is a very selective autobiographical note, to launch my blog and explain the background to my writing.

hair 1I was a great disappointment to my mother.  Heavily pregnant nine months after the 5th Essex Regiment arrived home from the war, she was convinced that I would be a girl, and decided to call me Felicity Elaine. Sadly (for her) I appeared with a willie, so she took her revenge by calling me Melvyn and allowing my curly, ginger hair to grow unchecked.

Snowfield above Eiger, 1966

 

Twenty years later, I was shorn of my locks, but assumed that a white jacket and cravat would be appropriate for my first foreign trip – here snapped on the snowfield below the Jungfraujoch in the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland, still one of my favourite parts of the world. Actually, when the tour operator suggested that I might like to try the ‘Jung-frau’ experience, I – knowing no  mountain names and only a little German – thought it might be a new and memorable experience for me! I was right! (In case you wonder, the spiders crawling through the air by my left ear were not there originally, but are a sign of rot setting in on the emulsion of the slide – emblematic of what was to come, some might think!)

By alpine streamWithin a few years, student life at the end of the sixties had turned me into more of a hairy philosopher, or mystic, or poet even.  Here I sit by a mountain stream contemplating the meaning of life or perhaps the possibility of another beer!

Alas, the hairline receded, to leave me with a monastic tonsure; at which point I decided to take matters of my head into my own hands and shave the dome. By that time, of course, my ginger had turned to grey and then white.

newmugSo there you have it; my life in follicle perspective!

But while my hair has gone from the luxuriantly tousled to the relatively smooth, by brain has inevitably and remorselessly moved in the opposite direction, with the gradual etching of neural pathways – the traces of the experiences, events and ideas that have come to direct my habitual patterns of thought and hence to explain the contents of this blog and my website.

First the easy bit…

I was brought up deep in the Essex countryside, and spent my early days wandering the woods and river in my home village of Little Baddow, so I’ve always felt most ‘at home’ when walking in the countryside and – from an early age, encouraged by my father – to do so with a camera.

swans

This image of swans on the Chelmer near Ulting, Essex, was taken when I was 13 and developed and printed in a little cupboard that served as our home darkroom.

The Lauterbrunnen valley, near Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland.

I still love landscape photography. To date, my most downloaded photograph on Shutterstock is this image of the Lauterbrunnen Valley in the Swiss Alps.

Now the more tricky bit…

My intellectual life has been shaped by the difficult, sometimes painful, juxtaposition of religion and philosophy.

I was brought up as an Anglican, sang in the church choir and became an altar boy.  The building, music and ritual coalesced around a general sense that here was something both beautiful and real, reinforced by a mystical sense of universal acceptance that I found as a child in the countryside.  It spoke of a reality that I knew first hand; a depth to experience and a sense of wonder that I have never doubted.  Yet I found it very difficult, even then as an early teenager going for Confirmation, to square that certainty of experience with the creeds and teachings of the Church. With hindsight, I recognise that my problem was with the whole idea of the supernatural – an uncertain, problematic world in which some believed and others did not, a world utterly different from the natural world into whose depths I was happy to immerse myself.  I sensed then that the only real distinction was between the deep and the superficial, rather than the believing and the non-believing;

At the age of 17, I read the newly-published Honest to God, and immediately identified with John Robinson’s argument – our image of God had to go, and with it the whole supernatural realm; exactly what I felt I already knew. I decided to study Theology and applied to King’s College, London, but before going to college, I read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.  An entirely new world opened for me; a world in which I could examine and challenge every argument, in which I could try to achieve intellectual honesty.

To cut a long and rather painful story short, I became an Anglican clergyman, and soon an extremely unhappy one.  I found myself on the ‘wrong’ side of almost every argument, desperately trying to understand how it was that people could believe the things that the Creeds taught.  On the one hand, I could not be honest about my own beliefs without appearing to undermine those of the people to whom I ministered and for whom such belief seemed to provide comfort and direction; on the other, my integrity was eroded by every attempt to compromise with the unbelievable in the effort to reform the Church. I found myself an unbelieving clergyman, but married to a believer and the product of a believing family. Yet I remained convinced that the depths of life to which religion, morality, aesthetics and mysticism pointed were of supreme importance.  I retreated into the academic world and philosophy – opting for integrity, but losing the depth, intuitiveness and practical use of religion.

Some years later, I found myself drawn towards Buddhist practice, finding there an open-minded exploration of the reality of being human, and a wonderful vehicle for spiritual development without the impediment of supernatural beliefs. My association with that particular Buddhist group did not last, but it provided a valuable training and insights that I continue to appreciate.

Once established on the tabula rasa of the young brain, neural pathways are reinforced by use, as each new experience overlays those already set down. Our brain grows with us, as do our thoughts, but the most fundamental pathways are the earliest, and I can still sit alone on a riverbank and sense my earlier self, shedding for a moment the clutter of decades and the regrets about habitual unwisdom and hurts exchanged.

Of course, the most important features of life are neither included in a follicle count nor explained in terms of the intellectual pathways that shape the development of our thinking – but they concern other people, and are not relevant to an appreciation of where I am coming from in terms of the books on religion, philosophy and ethics, or my landscape photography. Hence, I spare you the details; and spare those closest to me the indignity of being included here.

Over 40 years of writing, and almost as many involved with education in one form or another, my early sense of mystical wonder and my dislike of supernatural speculations have given impetus both to my early academic research and to my many publications.  To abbreviate a quote from Martin Luther… “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other…’ (but I’d probably prefer to omit the phrase that follows: ‘so help me God. Amen’)

If to understand is to forgive, I hope you have and therefore will.

And to see what I write, and much else, visit my website.